Stanford pharmacology leader Tag Mansour dies at 86
Tag Mansour, PhD, who led the Stanford School of Medicine’s pharmacology department during the early days of the molecular genetics revolution and on through more than a decade of growth, died Nov. 4, two days before his 87th birthday. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for several years.
Mansour’s research focused on the biochemistry of parasites, an interest spurred by firsthand knowledge of the suffering they cause around the globe. “He was a pioneer in the application of biochemistry to understanding how parasites work, with the aim of killing a parasite without killing the person,” said Jim Ferrell, PhD, a professor of chemical and systems biology who worked in Mansour’s Stanford lab as a graduate student.
Born in Egypt, Mansour earned a degree in veterinary science from the University of Cairo, and doctorates in pharmacology and biochemistry from the University of Birmingham in England.
After completing his pharmacology studies in England, he returned to Egypt in 1949 for a job at Cairo University, where he was put to work vaccinating cows. Seeking opportunities for laboratory research, he volunteered at the U.S. Naval Research Center in Cairo and applied for a Fulbright fellowship, which brought him to the United States, to Howard University in 1951 to teach pharmacology.
Mansour was able to stay and work in the United States after the fellowship because of an administrative mistake — “a lucky one,” said his wife, Joan MacKinnon Mansour, who met him shortly after the fellowship ended. “He received an immigrant visa instead of a student visa.”
Tag Mansour moved to Cleveland in 1952 to join Ernest Bueding, MD, at Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve University) to study the parasitic worm Schistosoma mansoni. S. mansoni and other closely related species are the cause of schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia or snail fever). Endemic to Egypt, it is the world’s second-most socioeconomically devastating parasitic disease after malaria. In 1954 he returned to Egypt to work at Cairo University, but political and military conflicts closed the school, and when Bueding moved to the University of Louisiana in New Orleans and offered him a position, he soon followed.
Mansour joined Stanford’s Department of Pharmacology faculty in 1961, continuing his Schistosoma research. (The department has since become the Department of Chemical and Systems Biology.) He purified one of the organism’s key enzymes, phosphofructokinase, and went on to make important contributions to the understanding of how it regulates energy production and serotonin signaling. He later determined the genetic sequence for the enzyme. He also studied the biochemistry of other parasites, including the liver fluke Fasiciola hepatica, and the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii.
Mansour became the department’s chairman and was named the first Baxter professor of the Donald and Delia Baxter Foundation in 1976. For many years, he led the Stanford section of a MacArthur Foundation-funded international research program on the biology of parasites. He served as consultant to the World Health Organization and the National Academies of Sciences. He was a recipient of the prestigious Heath Clark Lectureship at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His 2002 book, Chemotherapeutic Targets in Parasites, offers a comprehensive discussion of how to discover new drug treatments for parasites.
Medical research was not, however, Mansour’s only deep interest. “He painted in the evenings, after work,” said his wife. Vibrantly colored works in oil and tempera, and Arabic calligraphy range across the walls of his home on the Stanford campus. In 2005, he exhibited his work in the Stanford Faculty Club.
He encouraged his students and postdocs to pursue their interests, even if they took them beyond the lab bench. In the 1970s, the lab was an eclectic collection of talented individuals and research topics, recalled former graduate student and postdoctoral researcher John Northup, PhD, now a senior investigator at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
“His laboratory was very much in the continental style: Each project was assigned to an individual investigator rather than a large team of researchers grinding out results. The atmosphere of the lab matched Dr. Mansour’s ‘renaissance scholar’ approach to knowledge. He often would remind me that I was to receive a doctorate in philosophy, not technology,” Northup said. “He was truly a gentleman scholar of the Old World who adhered to that ethos throughout his career.”
Mansour remained involved in medicine in the Arab world while in the United States. He helped establish the medical school at the University of Aleppo in Syria, teaching there briefly in 1970, and played a similar role at the University of Kuwait in 1977. In 1963, UNICEF hired him to write a proposal for Egypt’s health ministry to treat S. mansoni, though as far as he knew, it was never pursued. “When he asked an official about what happened to his proposal years later, he’d say he was told, ‘it was locked in a safe,’” said his wife.
Mansour is survived by his wife; their three children, Suzanne Mansour, of Salt Lake City, Jeanne Peterson, of Tacoma, Wash., and Dean Mansour, of Redwood City, Calif.; and four grandchildren. The family will hold a remembrance reception at the Stanford Faculty Club from 4-6 p.m. on Dec. 16.
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